Native American women are victims of violent crimes at 3.5 times the rate of the national average, but many are unable to connect with the resources they need to find safety and justice. The new StrongHearts Native Helpline, headquartered in Austin within the National Domestic Violence Hotline, hopes to serve that need.
The data comes from a 2016 National Institute of Justice report, which also found that 84 percent of Native American men and women have experienced violence in their lifetime. Native Americans on reservations face a patchwork of jurisdictions and a lack resources that perpetuate the issue, says Lori Jump, assistant director of StrongHearts.
StrongHearts will focus first on serving Kansas, Oklahoma and Nebraska, then roll out as resources become available. The helpline is a collaboration between the National Domestic Violence Hotline and the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center.
Katy Ray-Jones, CEO of the National Domestic Hotline said StrongHearts has been years in the making, beginning from the first understanding of the prevalence and complexity of violence among Native people. “We felt like a level of care had to be given to Native women to be able to understand the complexities of the issues they were facing and respond to the specific help they needed to ensure they were on the path to safety and justice.”
The legal system and historical injustices tribal communities have faced make it more difficult for them to get the resources they need. Tribal governments have sovereignty on reservations, but they do not have jurisdiction to prosecute non-tribal members for crimes like assault, child abuse or rape on tribal lands. Those cases are sent to United States attorneys, which typically decline to pursue more than half of rape charges on reservations, according to the Government Accountability Office. Lori Jump, assistant director of StrongHearts, says perpetrators of assault, violence and rape take advantage of the loophole to avoid criminal charges. In fact, in May 2016 the Justice Department reported that among Native American female victims, 96 percent experienced sexual violence by a non-Native perpetrator.
“So many things that have impacted our native communities,” said Jump, starting from colonization to the forced removal of Native children and placement into white homes for about 100 years, to the forced sterilization of Native American women in the 1970s. “All of these atrocities have led to the breakdown of our traditions,” said Jump. “Violence against women was not tolerated in our native communities.”
The government’s mishandling of these cases along with its general history of mistreatment of Native people have led many Native Americans have a mistrust of the government, agencies and services provided to non-Natives, says Jump.
“And that has impeded our ability to reach out and help,” she said. “That’s where StrongHearts comes in.”
To staff the helpline, StrongHearts recruited from across the country, requiring each employee to have an understanding of the impact of historical trauma and of the jurisdictional issues that affect Indian reservations. Its biggest challenge has been in building a database of local resources to which they can refer callers. “Every tribe is different. We have to be very careful in how we do that outreach,” said Jump. “We need to build trust with Native programs and Native survivors and have a collaborative approach.”
This past week, Ray-Jones was in Washington D.C. meeting with congressional staffers to discuss funding to the Family Violence Prevention and Services Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which provides about 60 percent of the NDVH $15.3 million budget. The Trump administration’s proposed cuts would significantly reduce the number of people the hotline could serve, and Ray-Jones says it can only respond to 76 percent of the incoming calls as it is. While she’s optimistic about the outcome, Ray-Jones said, “We are actively seeking private support for StrongHearts and our work.”
“It’s going to take more time and more resources to cover the entire country because we have to be very careful about how we do outreach,” said Jump. That means meeting with tribal leaders face to face and forming a network of resources. “We want to be that place of connection and get them to somebody as nearby to them as we can get.”
HOW TO GET HELP
National Domestic Violence Hotline
Available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week
StrongHearts Native Helpline
Monday – Friday, 9 am – 5:30 pm CST
NOTE: A version of this article was also published in the Austin American-Statesman on July 23, 2017.